Here are some books I've read lately that I have been recommending to anyone who will listen. (Newly read books are added to the top of the list.) My library card is one of my most precious possessions!

True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, by Farhad Manjoo (Wiley & Sons, 2008). An interesting account (based partly on sociological studies, partly on informed observation of society) of how the meaning of "objectivity" has altered in popular/mainstream U.S. culture. When "presenting both sides" becomes more important -- and more socially and economically valued -- than being in touch with reality, we're all in trouble. We're all in trouble now.

Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, by Peter Sacks (University of California Press, 2007). An interesting, readable account of how U.S. educational institutions -- K through college -- reflect and reinforce/reproduce economic class stratification. Sacks also explains what this means for the future of the U.S. economy and why all in the U.S., including those who are doing fine under the present system, have a stake in breaking down class barriers in education.

Small Island, by Andrea Levy (Picador, 2004). This novel, recommended by a friend, took me by surprise. When I started reading, I was sure it wouldn't be "my kind of book." Just goes to show how much we miss when we stick to what we know we'll like. Set before, during, and just after World War II, the book is told from four points of view: two young Jamaicans who emigrate to England, and two people in England with whom their lives become entwined. Each of the characters surprised me. And although I've been reading about WWII most of my life, I saw it here from several completely new vantage points. I was happily engaged from beginning to end.

Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, by Joseph Margulies (Simon & Schuster, 2006). Margulies, a lawyer who represents prisoners at Guantanamo, has written an excellent, chilling account of how the Bush administration made it possible for other countries (Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Namibia, Egypt, and Malaysia among them) to justify their own human rights abuses on the basis that they are merely following the example set by the U.S. at Guantanamo. Along with compelling examples of people illegally and illogically detained for years, sometimes tortured, always mistreated, occasionally killed, the book also gives an overview of the legal struggle to extend human and civil rights to these prisoners. Margulies writes well, and his discussion of why and how our species winds itself into these cruel knots is persuasive. "Unfortunately," he notes, "the same mind-set that brought [the prisoners] to Cuba has made it almost impossible to release them," even when innocence is established. I finished this book in early August 2006 and, that same evening, heard on the radio that the Bush administration is trying to find yet another scam with which to maintain hold over their prisoners, despite the recent Supreme Court decision. How can we stand for this horror to continue?

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (both Patheon 2004). So far, these are the only "graphic novel" style books I've been able to enjoy. And enjoy them I did! Satrapi was ten years old when the Islamic Revolution took place in her homeland of Iran. She shows us how the changes looked through the eyes of a bright, energetic girl who suddenly must wear a headscarf in school and adapt to roving gangs of "morals police" in the streets of her city. At the end of the first book, she is a young teenager leaving Iran for school in Austria. Book 2 shows us her attempts to make a life for herself there and, after she ends up living on the streets, her return to Iran, adulthood, marriage, continued resistance, and eventual self-exile. These books are a lot of fun, as well as giving us one human-sized eye view of a nation we in the U.S. know all too little about.

Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (Yale University Press, 2005). Why is the vaunted "checks and balances" system no longer working in the United States? How have a minority of radical-right Republicans been able to push through their agenda, despite being far from the moderate center of U.S. opinion and beliefs? This book is a readable explanation of how we got onto this slippery slope to fascism.

White on Black, by Ruben Gallego (Harcourt, 2004). This small book is like a photo album. Reading it is like sitting with the photographer as he brings each snapshot to life. Quickly, with the assurance of clear memory and refined knowledge of what is important (and what is not). Gallego grew up in a series of children's homes and orphanages in the Soviet Union. Having "no [useable] hands or feet" put him in the lower rank of the "non-ambulatory," destined to go from children's home to old-age home and die. This is definitely a life shown from the inside, from someone whose life is (until near the end of the book) the institution. As such, it blows away stereotype after stereotype about what institutions are and do. We wouldn't have a chance to be entranced by this voice if Gallego hadn't gotten out eventually. Once I started to read, I read eagerly.

Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin (Penguin, 2004). The name Emma Larkin is a psedonym, as are very nearly all names in this book. The reason for the secrecy: the very thoroughly (and invasively) typrannical government of Burma. In the process of visiting the places where the young George Orwell was stationed during his five years working for the British Imperial Police in colonial Burma. Larkin reveals much about the current state of life in that country. She writes well, conveying the landscapes as well as the tentative relations she is able to establish with those brave enough to talk with her. In Burma, people say Orwell's novels Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984 parallel the history of their country. We can only hope for a less appallingly dystopian sequal.

Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, by Fergus M. Bordewich (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005). An interesting, highly readable history of the Underground Railroad that conveyed escaping slaves from the slave-holding states of the U.S. to the (relative) safetyof the (relatively) free Northern states or to Canada. Bordewich helps us understand the varying motives and experiences of individuals (both African-American and "white") who made up the Railroad, and he also weaves in the political history leading up to the Civil War, demonstrating how politics (local and natinoal) and the Underground affected each other.

The Culture of Make Believe, by Derrick Jensen (Context Books, 2002). "How, exactly, would you define a hate group?" That is the question that sets Jensen out on a 600-page exploration of how we have learned not to feel hate for those we destroy. Perhaps worse, we often feel no hate for those who destroy us. What we learn and what we unlearn in the process of becoming part of our society/civilization ensures that each ongoing mass destruction "will feel like economics. It will feel like progress. It will feel like technological innovation. It will feel like civilization. It will feel like the way things are." Melding history and personal experience, analysis and interview, Jensen makes an engrossing and persuasive case for his point of view and, whether you agree with his conclusions or not, enriches our understanding of how we got where we are.

Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, by Derrick Jensen (Chelsea Green Pub lishing Company, 2004). Jensen based this book on his experiences as a writing teacher. If I were in one of his classes, I'd probably hate it. The whole "I'm giving up part of my power so you can finally stop being a mindless slave" shtick always makes my teeth itch when I meet it in person. In a book, it's a lot easier to take. Especially when the book is often funny, always interesting, and quite often thought-provoking. The thoughts provoked range around the institution of "school" in this society: whose purposes it serves, and how those caught up in it can salvage something from their time there. Jensen wants to save the planet. So do I. His energy and commitment are amazing. Whether we want to be in the same room with him or not, I suspect the planet is lucky he's around.

Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy, by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (HarperCollins, 2004). This clearly-written and accessible book provides specific example after well-documented specific example of how mega-corporations get away with murder (literally, killing people) by using their influence over the U.S. government to evade or eliminate laws protecting our air, water, and land. "You show me a polluter and I'll show you a subsidy," writes Kennedy. "I'll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the market and load its production costs onto the backs of the public." I especially appreciated the sections on how the Bush administration distorts and suppresses science and on factory farming ("The fact is, an industrial meat factory cannot produce a pound of bacon or a pork chop cheaper than a family farmer without breaking the law.").

My Times: A Memoir of Dissent, by John L. Hess (Seven Stories Press, 2003). A personal, often engaging account of Hess' 24 years with the New York Times. The details of his story reveal how the NYT has been "embedded" for decades -- dependent on and beholden to the elites of government and the economy -- and how frustrating that can be for a journalist who takes the ethics of journalism seriously. The first item in the book's Epilogue reminds us that the attack on (in the guise of "saving" or "reforming") Social Security did not begin with George W. Bush

Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, by George Lakoff (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004; If you don't want to read cognitive science and linguistics professor Lakoff's 2002 book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (U of Chicago Press), read this short compilation of user-friendly essays. Or at least read the first one: "Framing 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse." Language alone can't bring about change, but language plays a huge rule in structuring how we (and those we would like to join us) think. Through "framing," Lakoff asserts persuasively, we can give our political (and moral) principles a fighting chance.

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, by Jessica Stern (HarperCollins, 2003). Stern started her research for this book with a history of terrorism expertise and an "intense curiosity about why people who are obsessed with good and evil end up murdering innocents...." After spending time with terrorists here in the U.S. and abroad (Pakistan, Israel, Indonesia), she concludes that "purifying the world through holy war is addictive." It "intensifies the boundaries between Us and Them, satisfying the inherently human longing for a clear identify and a definite purpose in life...." For a Jewish woman from the U.S. to attempt to understand these holy warriors face-to-face makes for a fascinating book. Her conclusion: "One of our goals must be to make the terrorists' purification project seem less urgent...." We do that, she says, by working to demonstrate human commonalities across lines of religion, culture, language, and nation -- anti-terrorism work in which all of us can play a part.

Providence of a Sparrow: Lessons from a life gone to the birds, by Chris Chester (University of Utah Press, 2002). This book was more fun to read than anything that has come my way in years. Chester has a fine sense of humor and the linguistic gifts to translate his perspective into sentences and scenes that surprise a laugh out of me. More than its humor, though, the book charms with its detailed account of the author's falling in love with the house sparrow named B. Most of us won't ever choose, as Chester and his wife did, to turn over half the house to free-flying birds. And even if we did, I suspect most of us wouldn't have the insight to learn from that experience half as much about life and the ethical implications thereof as Chester clearly did.

Boiling Point: how politicians, big oil and coal, journalists, and activists are fueling the climate crisis -- and what we can do to avert disaster, by Ross Gelbspan (Basic Books, 2004). Don't worry. This is not a hard book to read. Facing up to the reality of human-induced climate change is hard, but once you've done that, this book can be the next positive step. Did you know that major U.S. insurance companies are "moving inland," choosing not to insure those who live on the coasts? That's because they realize their profits are jeopardized by the impact of the changes in the weather. Already. With much more to come. Gelbspan precedes each chapter with a short "snapshot of the warming," various changes that already have taken place because of climate change. His critique of both U.S. government ("...the Bush administration climate policies do not reflect political conservatism. They reflect corruption disguised as conservatism.") and U.S. environmental organizations' programs on global warming are persuasive and important. Gelbspan also has a plan. With this plan, he says, we can hope not only to slow and eventually reverse the mechanism of global warming, we also can increase democracy, achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth (or at least, a less inequitable distribution of poverty) around the world, and "move forward into a much more coherent and prosperous and peaceful future."

The Raw Deal: How Myths and Misinformation about the Deficit, Inflation, and Wealth Impoverish America, by Ellen Frank (Beacon, 2004). Even an economics-averse person like me can read this book. Amazing! What's more, it is a wealth of information about how financial interests and politicians have combined to sell a bill of goods to uninformed members of the public (like me). Think the Social Security System is on the verge of bankruptcy? Believe that inflation is the biggest, most dangerous economic evil? Accept, wistfully, the idea that we'd all be better off if the American public would just put more of their income into savings? Frank's account of how the U.S. (and global) economic system has been changed over the last thirty years is important for all of us to understand. More and more, as she writes, "...the language and thrust of economic policy...faithfully reflects the interests of the wealthy." And Frank has the background to show that, despite the inability on the part of the wealthy to resist maximizing their own short-term return, all of society would benefit from the more stable economy that would result from more widely-shared economic security.

The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy, by Marjorie Kelly (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001. This is an enjoyable, energizing book. Kelly's main thesis is that the U.S. is sorely in need of economic democracy. For a small flavor of the book, I will present here a string of short quotations. p. 11: " Michael Foucault observed, ideas are mechanisms of power. 'A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains,' he wrote, 'but a true politician binds them even more stro ngly by the chain of their own ideas.'" p. 63: "That stockholders dominate governance today seems to us a natural law, but is in fact a normative law, a belief about who should matter. It is, in short, a bias." p. 69: "When wealth interests seek government protection, we're told that property rights are vital to a free market. When labor or environmental rights need government protection, we're told about the danger of infringing on the free market." p. 101: "We should express outrage whenever CEOs say, 'Employees are our greatest assets.' Employees might instead be referred to as...investors, for they invest ideas and energy and time. 'Employees are our greatest investors' has a very different ring." p. 159: "[The control corporations exert over the legal machinery] is lawful because it is supported by the courts. But the monarchy in its day was also considered lawful. As long as such an unjust legal order remains in place, it works on society what French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once called 'inert violence.' It does so not overtly but overtly, under the guise of justice." Kelly uses a multitude of historical and contemporary sources and examples to build her argument. I found this a very interesting book indeed.

Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, by Dawn Prince-Hughes (Random House, 2004). An interesting first-hand account of how gorillas in a zoo helped the author understand herself and other humans. Much of what she says about autism (or so-called Asperger's Syndrome) resonates with me. For example: "...the cut-and-dried description provided by the DSM-IV makes people with Asperger's seem to be the epitome of cold disinterest, complete uncaring, and total self-absorption. What Tara [her partner] learned, and what I hasten to remind the reader, is that the characteristics described in the DSM-IV are just that: they are descriptions of coping behaviors and not descriptions, necessarily, of innate orientation" (p. 175). I especially enjoyed her descriptions of gorilla interactions she observed and what they revealed about gorilla nature and gorilla social structure.

The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves, by Curtis White (Harper Collins 2003). Curtis, a university English professor, writes: "I am interested in the imagination as a social force that allows for both critique and reinvention." Why we need critique and reinvention -- why we need to re-discover and learn to employ the power of imagination -- is the subject of this book. What makes it fun is Curtis' willingness to give his opinions without "polite" equivocation. He analyzes a variety of recent cultural artifacts (NPR's Terry Gross, the film "Finding Private Ryan," the academic field of Culture Studies, etc.), pointing out how they enhance the "administered conformity" in which we live. And he encourages us to rebel against that manufactured cultural immersion by remembering the uses and the power art can have in our lives. "Is it not a plausible description of our cultural disaster," he asks, "that we are led by the nose by sinister ideological hacks of the kind I have surveyed in this book, but we refuse, as if there were a bad smell about it, the kind of thought that could save us?" Curtis wants us to "think change," and he has written this refreshing book to give us a hint of how to go about it.

Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy, by Walter Williams (Georgetown University Press, 2003). How was the U.S. federal government intended to work by its founders, and how is it working today? This book gives a broad overview (with close attention to selected functions) from the 1787 Constitutional Convention to the administration of George W. Bush. As the title implies, Williams believes the anti-governmentalism of the Reagan administration represents (and implemented) the ideology that has eroded the ability of the federal government to serve the functions intended by the Founders. Each element of the "balance of powers" (not only the three branches of government, but also the citizenry and the press) is critiqued for its contribution to the decline in democratic function. This is an interesting and alarming book by a scholar in the field of public affairs.

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, by John M. Barry (Viking, 2004). Even if you aren't intrigued by accounts of social disaster, this book has some fascinating history to offer. The writing is over-wrought at times, but many of the incidents Barry includes are both memorable and "telling" (in the sense that they reveal a lot about the society in which they occurred). Among the most interesting elements for me: the suppression of civil liberties as the U.S. entered WWI, the changes taking place in U.S. medicine at that time, and the way individuals (including, specifically, women) responded to community needs when the official structures broke down. As influenza viruses continue to evolve, we may find ourselves re-living this history some day.

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, by Daniel Ellsberg (Viking, 2002). This is an amazing book. I participated (in the usual small, "grass roots" way) in the "home front" of the Vietnam War, but this book increased my understanding of that period of U.S. history dramatically. It illuminates both what was occurring in Vietnam (Ellsberg was there, not in the Embassy but out in the country itself) and, even more so, what was going on in the U.S. government. If you think you have a pretty good idea how the decisions get made, this book is likely to surprise you. Shock you, even. Ellsberg was part of the machinery that made the plans and kept them secret from the Congress, the press, and the American people. A former Marine and self-described "cold warrior," he has written an honest, intelligent account of what he did and how he gradually came to see his work as contributing to war crimes. I recommend the book highly, not only as a stand-alone history of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, but also as an important insight into the continuing development of the (Constitution-violating) "imperial presidency" in the United States.

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, by Chalmers Johnson (Metropolitan/ Henry Holt, 2004). Another important book from Johnson, author of Blowback which appears further down in this list. He describes how the United States has been "inching toward imperialism and militarism for many years," and how those two isms sustain and reenforce one another. Since 1989, he says, our government has given up foreign policy in favor of "military empire" and, specifically, an "empire of [military] bases" rather than colonies. In the process, the government has been violating key clauses of the Constitution. A particularly insidious thread in all of this is the privatization of the armed forces. Johnson quotes Colonel Bruce Grant: "Privatization is a way of going around Congress and not telling the public. Foreign policy is made by default by private military consultants motivated by bottom-line profits." If you are a U.S. citizen, you are paying for more than 725 military bases around the world. This book is a window into what the government isn't telling you about what your money has bought.

The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy by William Greider (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Readable book about why and how we (in the U.S.) need to create a new kind of capitalism. Greider recognizes that capitalism is good at certain things, but he shows clearly how un-checked capitalism destroys every kind of wealth other than the kind that goes into the pockets (or bank accounts) of a few. A reformed capitalism -- human-sized, held responsible for all the real costs of doing business -- will "produce real new wealth, profit in the narrow meaning but also genuine value added to the material basis for sustaining a civilized society." Especially interesting is what he has to say about workers, unions, and how workers and our unions could redirect our resources to support our lives (including our environment, our planet).

White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society, by Michael K. Brown, Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie,Troy Duster, David B. Oppenheimer, Marjorie M. Shultz, and David Wellman (Univ. of California Press, 2003). The authors use data from a variety of studies to document the "durable racial inequality" in the United States. Much of their book is stated as a response to the "racial realists," the conservatives who have persuaded a majority of "white" Americans that "the troubling and stubborn gaps in life-chances between black and white Americans no longer have much, if anything, to do with racism...." An interesting account of how social, political, economic, and judicial currents in the 1940s and '50s provided a basis for entrenchment of de facto racial discrimination after de jure segregation had been eliminated. And then the book goes on to address how the process continues into the 21st century. The "selective perception" of reality by "white" Americans plays a major role in perpetuating "durable racial inequality." This book provides the wherewithal to become less selective and more in touch with the nature of the world we live in.

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee (William Morrow, 1998). Great fun. M.D./Ph.D. Ramachandran uses fascinating examples of changes in human behavior and perception caused by damage to specific parts of the brain to explore how the brain works in all of us. By the end of the book, he has developed a context within which to consider the nature and basis of human personality.

Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy, by Ted Nace (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003). Interesting overview of corporations in U.S. history, how the original antipathy to corporate power was overcome by the manipulation of individuals and the step-by-step use of court precedent to turn corporations into "persons" in the eyes of the law. A good primer for those who wonder how our democracy has been usurped by corporate power and what we can do about it.

Equality, by Edward Bellamy (Appleton, 1910). This utopia, a follow-up on Bellamyís better-known Looking Backward, was published originally in 1897. If, like me, you enjoy the literary ěvoiceî of the late 19th Century, you may be able to use this book in lieu of a vacation. There is minimal plot, almost no characterization, and the closest we get to an "action sequence" is a brief account of a gymnastics exhibition. But for me, reading the book was almost like being transported out of the bitter irrationality that surrounds us here in the future about which Bellamy was so hopeful. His utopia is set in the year 2000, a date by which our species had already left far behind (in Bellamy's fantasy) the moral deformations imposed on us by generations of enslavement to capitalist ideology. Through a series of engaging lessons from a man of the year 2000, the time-traveling character from Bellamy's own era is helped to understand how vicious and cruel was the system by which he had been living, the system that had seemed to him (as it seems to many in the U.S. still today) to be the acme of human culture. Here is an exchange in the year 2000 between a young student and his Socratic teacher, as overheard by Bellamy's time-traveler:

"There were no political economists before the Revolution," replied the lad.
"But there certainly was a large class of learned men who called themselves political economists."
"Oh, yes; but they labeled themselves wrongly."
"How do you make that out?"
"Because there was not, until the Revolution--except, of course, among those who sought to bring it to pass--any conception whatever of what political economy is."

"The Revolution," of course, is the change Bellamy hoped would come between his day and our own. Alas, he was wrong. So far, anyway. Maybe if enough of us continue to dream his dream of genuine equality, some future generation will live out the social revolution Bellamy's book enables us to visit.
The book is online through Project Gutenberg

World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, by Amy Chua (Doubleday, 2003). Should the U.S. government be "exporting democracy" to the developing world? Should it be "exporting free markets"? If your answer to either question is Yes, you should read this book. Democracy sounds like such a fine thing to share with the poor and down-trodden. Even markets don't sound so bad. In this extremely readable book, Chua shows how the effort to export free-market/laissez-faire democracy often has led to the worst kinds of backlash. Genocide in Rwanda, for example. The crucial factor left out of top-level policy-making is the existence of "market-dominant minorities" in many countries. After Chua shows the drastically appalling results the combination of market-dominant minorities and WTO/IMF-style markets (with or without the addition of the kind of democracy favored by the U.S. government -- for other countries, not our own) can and does produce, she proceeds to apply her insight to two scenarios that are not country-specific. Israel, she says, can be seen as the market-dominant minority in the Middle East region. And the United States, of course, is the market-dominant player in the global context. We're lucky Chua is the one who brings this insight to us, because her book is both well-written and reader-friendly. She keeps rhetoric to a minimum and never misses a chance to bring in human-sized examples from her own experience. Highly recommended.

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth about Globalization, Corporate Cons, and High Finance Fraudsters, by Greg Palast (Pluto Press, 2002). The sub-title would be more accurate if it said "..some of the truth about...." Even an apparently tireless digger like Palast, even aided by the assistant diggers he credits, could not deliver the whole truth. And there may be room to wonder whether this book contains "nothing but the truth," given Palast's entertaining willingness to share his personal reactions as well as the damning evidence he uncovers about those whose position in society endows them with more power than their ethics can handle. Anyone who has decided not to believe anything that smacks of "conspiracy theory" should read this book, however. Humans may be too inherently and self-defeatingly contrary to carry off the most grandiose conspiracies, but Palast shows us -- with documentation to back up his words -- that there really are conspiracies afoot in the world. Some of the sub-conspirators may believe their own agency/corporate PR about being designed "for the greater good." Alas, they're almost always mistaken (or "in denial"). "The IMF is never wrong without being cruel as well," Palast writes, and the observation applies far beyond the corridors of the IMF. Shake your world: read this book.

Killer Smog, by William Wise (Rand McNally, 1968). Engrossing account of the lethal 1952 "smog incident" in London. Includes an overview of the several centuries' worth of bureaucratic waffling that made it all possible.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Most of us don't want to know what this book tells us, but Schlosser makes it interesting -- even amazing, at times. The moral of the story: "The low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect its real cost -- and should. The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society." And that means you. Even if you don't eat fast food, you need to know what this book tells us about how our lives have been changed by the practices of the hugely successful and powerful corporations behind the clown's smile.

Emma's War: an aid worker, a warlord, radical Islam, and the politics of oil - a true story of love and death in Sudan, by Deborah Scroggins (Pantheon, 2002). Yes, there is a love story between a British aid worker and a Sudanese warlord. But this book primarily is an introduction to the complexities and contradictions that arise when "Western" aid organizations inject themselves into other cultures. Specifically, Scroggins tells about the wars in post-colonial Sudan, split between an Islamic north and a Christian/animist south (fractured even further into tribes, clans, and families), afflicted by both war and famine, and subject to manipulation by a wide variety of outside actors. The human misery the aid workers hope to ease can itself become a pawn in the game of power. Although this is an easy book to read in terms of its writing and interest, the pictures it gives us of the world are painful and appalling. A good book for those who have begun to suspect that there is something much more complicated going on than the charitable appeals or the standard political slogans seem to imply.

War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges (Public Affairs, 2002). A New York Times reporter who has spent many years in war zones (including Kosovo, Iraq, and El Salvador) contrasts "the myth of war" and the reality of war. Although he says he is not a pacifist, this book makes it clear that no war lives up to its official justification. Particularly interesting now are his observations on how governments (including that of the U.S.) manipulate myths to evoke support for wars that are far from fulfilling the illusions promulgated by the myths.

The Ornament of the World: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain, by Maria Rosa Menocal (Little, Brown & Co., 2002). This is a book of history that enlarges the mind. Although I knew in a general way that "Moors" lived and ruled in the Iberian Peninsula at some point in the past, I had no sense of how long and deep a space of time that cultural imprint lasted, nor what it was like for people living there at the time. Menocal introduces the history through the lives of individuals -- Muslims, Jews, Christians -- and pays particular attention to the role of language. Fascinating.

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, by Eric Klinenberg (University of Chicago Press, 2002). This is a good book. Klinenberg investigated what factors determined which members of vulnerable populations survived and which members died in the 1995 Chicago heat wave. (There were between 645 and 733 heat-related deaths in one week, depending on who is doing the counting.) Fascinating stuff. Besides telling that story well, Klinenberg uses the details of the disaster to bring to light (and illustrate) some deeply disturbing trends in U.S. society and politics. The currently popular "entrepreneurial" style of government, he shows, turns out to be a new, more efficient way to ensure that the "haves" get more and the "have-nots" end up even more cut off from public services. Klinenberg also examines the role of the media and their interactions with government agencies. Highly recommended.

Mosaic 1: Life Stories (from isolation to community), edited and with an introduction by Ruth Pettis, published by the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project, Seattle. This first volume of a planned series is the fruit of eight years' work by dedicated oral historians. Although the group's goal was to document local history, they got more than they bargained for. Seattle was a magnet for people from all over the U.S. in the past several decades. As a result, we hear from people whose lives began far away and who entered the tale of Seattle's gay community at various dates and stages. The stories are woven together in a way that lets the reader get to know individuals as well as the events they witnessed or instigated. I've lived in Seattle since 1972, and many of the names in Mosaic 1 are familiar to me. Reading their latter day perspectives on past struggles (and entertainments) was fun and (dare I say it?) heart-warming. Life often seemed, back then, like the caption from that early-1970s cartoon where a depressed-looking young woman says, "It's been one of those no-love, all-struggle days." This well-produced volume puts the life -- and the love -- back in the history it tells. For information on how to find a copy, go here.

Stupid White Men and other sorry excuses for the state of the nation by Michael Moore (Regan Books, 2001). He's funny, he does his homework, and he's an optimist. Read this book to rev the engine of your indignation without burning out in a toxic cloud of despair.

Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, by David Brock (Crown, 2002). Want proof that our species should not be in charge of a planet? Here it is. Starting out vaguely liberal, Brock was alienated by the excesses of leftist fellow undergrads at Berkeley in the early 1980s. His move to the right took him into the heart of the virulently anti-Clinton far-right during the time when control of the Republican Party was changing from traditional conservatives to rabid reactionaries who had no qualms about abandoning all ethical considerations is pursuit of power. If you've been hoping your estimate of Bush II's appointees errs on the side of pessimism, this book will explode that hope and give you plenty of reason to expect the worst. It's a disgusting story as well as scary, but readable (as long as you have some tolerance for clichČ) and even amazing in its way. Brock is gay, which adds a pinch of farce to the whole circus: watch him walk the tightrope suspended above the pool filled with gay-eating crocodiles.

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, by John McWhorter (Times Books/Henry Holt, 2001). Anyone who loves or is obsessive about langage is likely to find this book a treat. McWhorter is a serious linguist with a fast and irreverent sense of humor. The purpose of the book, he says, is to tell the story of how "the original language has developed into six thousand...." Lots and lots of fascinating examples and stories about language(s). A real feast!

In the Name of Identity: violence and the need to belong, by Amin Maalouf (translated from the French by Barbara Bray). Published in 2001. Reading this book is like listening to an interesting person talk intelligently about a subject s/he knows well, a subject that personal experience has made important enough to the writer that s/he has had to devote a great deal of thought to it. Maalouf, a novelist, spent his first 20-some years in Lebanon and now has lived in France for more than an equal number of years. He writes about why globalization feels so threatening to many people around the world (not that it doesn't really threathen many people in directly material ways) and why some people have reacted by becoming "terrorists" and hyper-Islamists. This is a short, easy-to-read book that presents a point of view many in the U.S. don't get a chance to hear.

One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, by Thomas Frank (Doubleday, 2000). This is a "must read" book, as far as I'm concerned. Too many people I know, despite being longtime liberals, radicals, or simply critical thinkers, have swallowed too much of the disinformation this bo ok methodically counters. If you think Social Security is doomed, read this book. You'll find out what the real threat is. If you think the "new economy" has increased (or has the potential to increase) economic democracy,or any other kind of democracy, read this book. Thomas Frank has a sharp sense of humor, and he uses it to examine the cultural history of (mostly U.S.) economics in the last few decades: "...this is a book about the faiths and beliefs of business, and in this strictly cutural sense the notion of economic democracy through investing has proven not only durable but irresistible. As a faith, as a simple, abiding belief, market populism is capable of answering all doubts and silencing all doubters." After you read this book, you will not want to be silent anymore.

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig (1991). This is the kind of book that presents lots of opportunities for objection, disagreement, debate. But it's also a book that can widen a stale mind. And it's a lot of fun. A lot of fun. Pirsig (who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I have not read) uses the novel form, with himself as narrator, to map out a Metaphysics of Quality. Among other things, he advances the belief that American attitudes (as differentiated from European attitudes) owe an enormous amount to Indian/Native American ways of thinking. Pirsig probably belongs to that select group of writers with whom I would not get along at all in person (chalk and cheese, oil and water, nails on the blackboard) but by whose existence and work I feel my mental world is enlivened most happily.

Blowback: the costs and consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers A. Johnson. Well written, based on a wealth of knowledge and experience. Johson describes the unexpected (negative) "side-effects" of covert U.S. government policies since the Second World War. Although published before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., and despite the fact that Johnson's major case studies are drawn from East Asia (his area of expertise), this book has a lot of relevance to the most crucial issues of U.S.-world relations right now.

Commonsense Rebellion: debunking psychiatry, contronting society: an A to Z guide to rehumanizing our lives, by Bruce E. Levine. It really is an A to Z guide, and it really does debunk psychiatry. (Warning: if you or someone you care about is taking ritalin, this book may upset you.) I expected to disagree with the book, and of course I do in some respects, in some places. But I was pleasantly surprised by Levine's radical approach to the way U.S. culture invites us to hand over power (including the power to think, to define) to social, political, and economic institutions.

The Book of Life: a personal and ethical guide to race, normality, and the implications of the human genome project, by Barbara Katz Rothman. One review I read called this book "quirky," and I guess that's true. It's definitely personal (as the subtitle leads us to expect), and Rothman's sense of humor is the way-of-seeing-the-world kind, not the making-jokes kind. Which I like a lot. She uses her personal experiences and her absorbing interest in her topics to clarify a number of issues that are important to all of us. For example, if "race" doesn't exist, why is it so important? She does a good job explaining how easy it is to be led astray (intellectually) by the increasingly pervasive "genetic" explanations we are offered by the media.

I hope to be adding more books as I find the time to read them!

Back to home.